Tips for Choosing a School
Plus, key questions to ask
There is no “one best school” for all children. There are many reasons that parents choose certain schools for their children. For some it is a smaller teacher-student ratio and more individualized attention. For others, it is the religious grounding their children receive. For still others, it is to better address their student’s needs and cater to his academic timetable—be it a late bloomer or one who is gifted in math or art. But since no two schools are alike, where do parents begin their search for the right academic setting? Consider these tips for choosing a school:
1. Get real with recommendations
Get input from other parents you know and trust. At the same time, realize there is no perfect school or one-size-fits-all academic setting. Every school has a different flavor, and one is not necessarily better than another. It’s that one may be a better fit for your child than another. Listen to other parents, but also realize that your child may have very different needs than their children.
2. Consider your child’s individuality
Take in to account his strengths, weaknesses, interests and talents. Also mull over what sort of learning environment your child would be most comfortable in. Self-motivated learners, for example, may do well in a program where they get to direct and carry out their own learning. But a child in need of constant direction might be more suited to a structured environment.
3. Make a list
Write down what you are looking for in a school. Be specific about ambiance, class size, teaching style, curriculum, the role of art and music, homework and where parents fit in the running of the school. Then prioritize your list. Some things, such as class size, a strong art program or religious affiliation, may be non-negotiable. Other things would be nice but not necessarily mandatory.
4. Research options
Check out schools’ websites, or call and ask for more information. Consider each one’s program, mission, services, faculty and administration. What makes the school unique? What is its teaching philosophy? Is there a vision for the future? Is there anything the school does particularly well? What about the curriculum? Will it cater to your child’s talents, interests, temperament and learning style?
5. Don’t let cost limit you
Look at a school, even if you don’t think you can afford it. Many academic institutions offer scholarships or have financial aid based on need, so ask about it. At the same time, ask about what financial expectations may exist beyond just tuition.
6. Go the distance, if needed
A ride as far as 30 minutes may be worth it if the school has an environment where your child will be happy and thrive. Look for someone to carpool with. Or use that distance to let your child study or spend quality time together.
7. Schedule a visit
If you can, arrange to visit schools that meet your initial criteria. This will give you a feel for the school’s academic and developmental philosophy. Note, however, that even schools which adhere to like-minded philosophies can be tremendously different. A school that seemed to be the perfect fit on the internet, on paper or phone may prove otherwise once you have visited. And the school you weren’t initially drawn to may be the “one.” That’s why it’s important that you go. Test it. Feel it. See what it is like.
8. Meet with authorities
While visiting, spend a few minutes talking with the principal or school administrator. Discuss your child’s needs and ask if the school can meet those needs. Ask about discipline policies, and expectations.
9. Make observations
If possible, sit in on classes and observe the teachers and students. Write down obvious facts such as school and class size, diversity, ambiance as a whole and within individual classrooms, absence or presence of a dress code and general demeanor of the students and teachers. Also take note of the students’ attitudes and emotions. Did they appear comfortable and relaxed, or anxious and uptight?
10. Ask for references
If you haven’t already done so, get names of several parents whose children attend the school that would be willing to talk with you. Find out what they do and don’t like about the school. If you can, obtain a few names of parents who were not happy with the school and enrolled their children elsewhere. All schools have success stories, but no school works for every child. Finding out about a child who did not thrive there can give you a balanced perspective.
11. Get your child’s take
Return to the schools that meet your criteria and bring your child with you. Have him or her meet the teacher, and if possible, spend time in the classroom with the other students. What was his or her reaction? Did your child seem comfortable with the school? The teacher? Other students?
12. Follow your intuition
You know your child better than anyone else. If you have done your homework, you’ll know if it’s the right school for your child. Sometimes it’s not necessarily a specific program or academic feature that lets parents know it’s a good match. It’s that intangible feeling—that visceral reaction. They know this is a place where their child can grow and academically succeed.
Questions to Ask When Considering a School
- What is the school’s teaching philosophy? Is it accredited?
- What kinds of books are the children expected to read? Who chooses them?
- How and when is writing and composition taught? Is there time for creative writing?
- Is the curriculum established or does it emerge from the students’ interests?
- How often do the children use textbooks? Workbooks? Worksheets?
- When do children start getting homework? How much at what grades?
- How are the children assessed?
- When does computer/technology education start, and what does it involve?
- What extracurricular activities are offered? Is there an extra cost?
- How much time is spent on art, music, drama and physical education or athletics?
- Are there opportunities for students who are advanced in certain subjects to move ahead, and are students who are struggling provided with special tutoring or individualized help?
- If the school is a high school, are there AP and honors classes available?
- Are there many opportunities for cooperative learning? Inquiry-based learning? Projects?
- How is discipline for improper behavior carried out? What is the code of conduct? What about online conduct?
- What qualifications do the teachers have?
- Who makes decisions about the school?
- What level of parental participation is allowed? What is the expected level of parental participation?
Denise Morrison Yearian is a former parenting magazine editor and the mother of three children. (From nashvilleparent.com)